From his family’s point of view, one of the most important things to know about Eyal David Sherman, who died last month at the age of 36 after three decades confined to a wheelchair, was that he was a normal son and a normal brother.
Stories about Eyal and his bravery in facing a devastating disability were shared during his funeral and among friends last week. Yet a clear portrait also emerged of a young man who was treated just like any other member of the large, close-knit Sherman family. He graduated college. He loved painting and baseball and the Philadelphia Eagles. He participated in Kiddush with an accustomed role given him by his siblings. They teased him; he teased them right back.
“When it came to Eyal, my parents showed us how to make the extraordinary ordinary,” said Eyal’s younger brother, Rabbi Erez Sherman of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. “That’s what my parents were able to do, and that’s what we did. When I spoke at the funeral, the stories were just like any other sibling. It was a beautiful relationship of brothers being brothers.
“There are so many different lessons that he taught us as a brother,” Rabbi Sherman added. “The biggest is just how to be a sibling.”
Eyal, of Elkins Park, died of cardiac arrest at Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health on Sept. 24. He was the son of Leah and Charles Sherman, rabbi at Congregation Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park. He is survived by his parents; his brother; his three sisters, Rabbi Nogah Marshall, Orah Barnett, and Nitza; and several nieces and nephews. He was interred at Montefiore Cemetery in Jenkintown.
Eyal was born in May 1981 in Syracuse, N.Y. After being diagnosed with a brain stem tumor at the age of 4 and undergoing radical surgery to remove it, Eyal suffered a crippling stroke that left him quadriplegic. He would never walk again. He could not move on his own. He needed around-the-clock medical attention and underwent countless surgeries throughout his young life. At a time when children with such shattering disabilities were warehoused, said his father, Eyal was brought home to enjoy a life that had a remarkable level of normalcy.
“After he took sick, the Eyal we related to, cognitively and intellectually — he still had those qualities. We called it his ‘Eyal-ness.’ He was still our Eyal,” said his father. “You want to have two things: a body and a soul. If you only get one thing, what do you take? You have people in nursing homes who are walking around and are absolutely perfect, but they have no idea who they are. And then you have people like Eyal whose body is terribly broken, but the heart, the vibrancy, and the energy is all there. Unbeknownst to him, he became this heroic figure who taught by example. He never, ever complained about his lot in life.”
Rabbi Sherman wrote about Eyal in his 2014 book, The Broken and the Whole: Discovering Joy After Heartbreak, published by Scribner, which was awarded a Kirkus Star for books of exceptional merit. Eyal also appeared in numerous newspapers stories. Dateline NBC produced a segment about his life a few years ago.
After he completed Nottingham High School with honors in 1999, Eyal began taking classes at Syracuse University, accompanied at every stage by his mother, from his first semester through his graduation nine years later with a degree in fine arts and a talent for painting by holding a fitted paintbrush in his mouth. Eyal’s father helped arrange continuing, daily Skype conversations between Eyal and far-flung siblings after they grew up and left home. Nieces and nephews clambered over his lap during visits, and participated in his medical care.
For their own part, Eyal’s siblings got to the point long ago at which Eyal’s infirmity defined a new normal.
“He was our life and our brother. We just all wanted to be together,” said Rabbi Nogah Marshall, educational director at Congregation Beth El in Voorhees, N.J. “When we were younger, we’d come home from school and go to the hospital, do our homework there, hang out in his room. It was just our normal lifestyle growing up after school.”
The Sherman family lived for almost 40 years in upstate New York, where Rabbi Sherman was the spiritual leader at a large congregation. But both he and his wife are originally from Philadelphia, and they longed to return home. When they did nearly three years ago, Eyal enjoyed a quality of life he was not able to indulge in snowy Syracuse, with museum visits, trips to the Philadelphia Zoo and walks around the city.
And then, said his father, there was Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El, a small, haimish, traditional egalitarian congregation.
“I think of Psalm 23, the valley of shadow. When I walk through the valley of the shadow, and you’ve got to walk through it, you need somebody to walk through that valley with you, and these people have made us feel … I can hardly tell you,” Rabbi Sherman said. “No one can wash away the pain. This is something we will live with for the rest of our lives. The heart is broken. But on the other hand, to be embraced and nurtured by these people, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Of his family, Rabbi Sherman said the lessons gained through Eyal’s dignity and the fabric of support woven around him will help them cope with the loss of their son.
“My two granddaughters, they are 7 and 4, and it’s hard to explain this to a kid. So the other day, one of them said, ‘Which cloud is Uncle Eyal on?’ And her older sister answered, ‘Don’t you know? Uncle Eyal is everywhere.’ Anybody who experiences loss, and we all do, you close your eyes and you can hear a voice and you can see a face. So, he’s everywhere. He really is.”
To honor Eyal, the Sherman family has formed a foundation that aisms to provide quality of life for those in the disability community, focusing in particular on his interests: sports, the arts, music and Jewish life. Donations can be sent to the Eyal Sherman Foundation, c/o Estate Bookkeeping, Cozen O’Connor, 1650 Market St., Suite 2800, Philadelphia, Pa., 19103.
Wendy Plump is a freelance writer.